Cleansing Fire

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El Greco’s “Vision”

December 31st, 2012, Promulgated by Bernie

“Vision Of the Immaculate Conception”, by El Greco

This is El Greco’s1 Vision of the Immaculate Conception, 1608-13, Museo de Santa Cruz, Toledo, Spain). It is a truly amazing interpretation; very different from Guido Reni’s (see below) soft, peaceful, and harmonious rendition that we looked at a few weeks ago!

El Greco presents the doctrine of “Immaculate Conception” as a mystical, spiritual event that has cosmic consequences. It is literally “out-of-this-world”. Everything natural –space, proportion, gravity, anatomical accuracy, light, day and night, logic— have been abandoned so as to transport us into a spiritual state of ecstasy. We experience this doctrine.

The sun and the moon.

All of existence is here electrified by the event of the Immaculate Conception of Mary in the womb of Saint Anne.  The cosmos is set on fire as it begins recharging –as its redemption gets underway eventually culminating in the Incarnation (and Passion and Resurrection). The Immaculate Conception of Mary and the Incarnation/Nativity are linked. The Immaculate Conception of Mary is the glowing dawn announcing the approach of the brilliant sun. In the lower center we can see the sun breaking through the morning sky while the moon, to the right, still rules the darkness. The stage is set, the curtain is rising and the anticipation palpable. The world, darkened by sin, suddenly finds itself aflame in anticipation. The flashing whites and intense colors suggest the burst of fire from a match suddenly lit. The painting exudes promise and hope for full illumination. Heaven itself, symbolized by the angels playing string instruments accompanied by excited cupids, breaks out in joyful sound.

The excitement is communicated by El Greco’s decision to use an ambiguously balanced arrangement as his overall principle of design. Balance is ‘sensed’ and achieved intuitively rather than formally or overtly. An imaginary center axis line in this painting reveals significant differences between the two halves of the design. Diagonal movement to the left is opposed by a movement in the opposite direction. Large simple areas are balanced by more complicated ones. Also, intense colored shapes and white shapes balance darkness. The off-centered reds and yellows are balanced by the large blue shape in the center.

Opposing diagonals create excitement.

The contrasting or opposing diagonal directions convey movement and excitement. Diagonal lines (directions) are unstable and convey a sense of tension. (Horizontals and verticals –of which there are none except one in this work– convey stability and rest.)

El Greco also knows, however, that too much excitement -physical or otherwise- makes us feel sick (and can symbolize the triumph of sin) and so he subtly introduces some visual stability and rest. The use of equidistant tricolor harmony (red, yellow and blue) as in the Reni painting offers us balance. In addition, he arranges for some ‘centering’ to act as visual anchoring within the design. In fact we could almost call this an approximately ‘symmetrical’ design as his composition masterfully keeps us visually in suspense.

Visual anchors unconsciously keep us from losing our balance.

The attributes of the Virgin (roses, lilies, a mirror, and a fountain of clean water) indicative of the event of the Immaculate Conception appear at the bottom right of the painting. A view of Toledo, Spain appears on the left.

Toledo on the left, roses and lilies in the center right, and fountain on the right.

I’m tempted to ask the question: Which is the more appropriate painting from a liturgical/sacred art point of view? Which is more appropriate for use in the liturgy – for prominent display in a chancel: Reni’s “Immaculate Conception” or El Greco’s “Vision”? Do they both qualify? How do we decide?

Happy New Year!

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1 Born Doménikos Theotokópoulos, Greek (1541 – 7 April 1614); a painter of the Spanish Renaissance.

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4 Responses to “El Greco’s “Vision””

  1. avatar raymondfrice says:

    I wondered if El Greco’s elongated figures were painted so they would look proportionate when viewed from below; similar to the statues on European cathedrals.

  2. avatar Ben Anderson says:

    Bernie,
    Since you asked, I’ll give you my completely ignorant and uninformed opinion knowing that I’m probably wrong with this line of thinking. My immediate thought was that Reni’s work is more fitting in the chancel than El Greco’s simply because it portrays more goodness (holiness) than El Greco’s which shows more of the darkness/sin. While it’s good to keep in mind the darkness that God has overcome for us (and which we face everyday), it seems to me that the chancel should be more pure – a place of refuge where evil has been completely eradicated. I’m probably wrong with that thinking, but that was my first thought.

  3. avatar Bernie says:

    Ben: I like your thinking and I tend to agree!

    Unfortunately, we in the Western Church do not have any kind of canon for sacred art like that established in the Eastern Church. In the East, tradition is adhered to as an unwritten canon (although there is an unofficial canon that was written by an artist centuries ago that reflects the traditional approach -think icons and iconic hierarchy). It’s not likely that El Greco’s “Vision” or Reni’s “Immaculate Conception” would be acceptable in an Eastern church; not impossible, but not likely (except perhaps in a Russian Orthodox church). Of the two paintings, the Reni would stand the better chance, in my opinion, and mostly for the reasons you state.

    I “like” the El Greco but for mostly personal aesthetic reasons (sensual reasons: I like the appeal to the senses -movement, texture, color, contrasts). That would make it appropriate for my home. Needless to say, a strong sensual/physical appeal in rendering -even if it is a ‘mystical’ subject, seems out-of-place in the chancel where we expect a spiritual, heavenly, transformed, transfigured, deified image -we expect what IS to be transfigured into what WILL BE. One (El Greco’s)keeps us earth bound and the other (Reni’s) invites us to ascend. But, alas, in the West we are not clear about the purpose or meaning of the chancel area or even, now-a-days, whether there should even be a(separate)chancel!

  4. avatar Bernie says:

    Another point I can make: We are much more aware of the medium of paint -the physical plasticity and colorful appearance of the paint- in the El Greco painting. We can see actual brush strokes and overlapping of colors and tones. That sensual physical appeal often works against a transfigured -or spiritual- message. Mu opinion.


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